This Time Really Isn’t Different

Scott Peterson |
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Anytime the blended price of America’s 500 largest companies (S&P 500) drops by 34%, you know that there is something significantly wrong going on. This is the fourth time we have experienced this magnitude of decline in my thirty four year career and every time such an event comes around, we tend to surmise that, “this time it is different”. We conclude this because the details each crisis are fundamentally different from anything we have before faced.

Thus, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the economic panic it has engendered, seems entirely unique in our history. Moreover, we are without historical precedent as the equity markets become unmoored from valuation fundamentals. We have no idea how the pandemic will affect the earnings of corporations nor how much future dividends will be cut. Furthermore, we don’t really have an idea how long it will take for the economy to stabilize and return to a sustainable path of growth. We are mired in a bog of uncertainty as to how the immediate future will play out.

During times of uncertainty and fear, human nature defaults to the conclusion that our current crisis is fundamentally, and even fatally, different from past bear market episodes. That has always been human nature’s rationale for not staying the course and selling out in a panic. This fear of uncertainty caused the epic selloff in February and March when the stock market dropped 34% in thirty three days.

As I think about the three analogous bear markets of this magnitude that I have experienced during my tenure, I recognize that even though each is radically different in its particulars, each was fleeting in its long term effects once we got through them. The three events I am referring to are the Global Financial Crisis of 2008-09, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and the stock market crash of 1987.

During the Global Crisis of 2008-09 the world’s financial system found itself over-leveraged and holding trillions of dollars of worthless mortgage derivatives. Under this burden, the credit system broke. Many of the nation’s largest banks, brokerage firms and insurance companies were teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. In response, the S&P 500 declined 57%, making it the worst equity wipeout since the Great Depression. Liquidity was gradually restored, bad loans were written off and from the market trough of March 2009 to the market’s peak in February of 2020 the S&P index delivered an annualized return of 16.7% and stood almost five times higher in 2020 than its 2009 level.

As the nation reeled from the events of 9/11, Americans feared that World War III had begun. We waited for the next surprise attack fearing that the next one might be nuclear. The stock market was closed for a week and America was convinced that life as we knew it would forever be changed. We will never forget what transpired on that infamous day yet, economically and financially, 9/11 ended up being just a temporary distraction.

On a beautiful Fall day in October of 1987 the stock market had its single worst day in recorded history. The S&P 500 plummeted on Black Monday by 23%. Nobody understood the drop and we all wondered if this was our generation’s crash of 1929 and the ushering in of our very own Great Depression. I remember a couple of investors shooting their stock brokers while other distraught investors jumped from buildings and bridges. As disturbing as the events of Black Monday were, the stock market quickly rebounded, ushering the unprecedented growth that was experienced from the date of that crisis until the year 2000.

Today it is difficult if not impossible to envision that the financial effects of the COVID-19 pandemic will soon be a distant memory, a mere paragraph in a history book that will be added with the other Black Swan events of our times. This will happen because there simply is no other option. There are 330 million hungry American consumers and almost 7 billion additional consumers worldwide that will keep the market’s permanently marching on to new heights. The human race is too adaptable, too motivated, and too ingenious to let terrorism, viruses, or come what may derail our progress. There will be other crisis, there always are, but history has proven that whenever the human race is faced with a challenge, we ultimately overcome the challenge and move on.

Thus, the lesson of this crisis, as well as every other crisis past and future, is that although the exact nature of every crisis is unique, the resulting economic and financial impact of these crisis are remarkably similar and remarkably negligible. Long term investors cannot allow themselves to buy into the most destructive and expensive phrase ever uttered..... this time is different. “This time is different” will forever be the anthem of the failed investor and we can’t allow that phrase to creep into our psyche. History has proven that it is a losing proposition to bet against the ingenuity and indomitable spirit of the human race to succeed. We will overcome COVID-19, and this soon will become just another blip on a chart.

Stay the course, and remember that this time really isn’t different!